Editor’s Note: Ben Orbach is the author of “Live from Jordan” and the CEO of The Ascendant Athlete, an organization that works with professional athletes to advance social justice issues. The views expressed in this commentary are solely his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
(This article was originally published on October 29, 2018.)
Sunday evening, I attended a vigil at Beth Am Synagogue in Los Altos, California, for the 11 Pittsburghers who were shot and killed at Tree of Life synagogue on Saturday. It seemed like every faith was represented at the event, and there was solidarity among the hundreds of people who attended.
It isn’t enough, though. I’m done with “thoughts and prayers” in the wake of such tragedy.
I grew up in Squirrel Hill, the Pittsburgh neighborhood where the synagogue shooting occurred. I went to a Jewish elementary school, a majority black middle school, and a high school that was something in between, reflecting the diversity of our warm, inclusive, American community. I celebrated bar and bat mitzvahs at Tree of Life when I was a kid. I played pick-up basketball a few blocks away on Saturday afternoons. I never experienced anti-Semitism until I went away to college. Pittsburgh isn’t perfect, but it has a character that people want to be a part of, even after they move away.
Tree of Life was like any other synagogue, church, mosque, temple or shrine in our country – it was a place where people practiced their faith and drew strength and comfort from celebrating culture, history, and ritual together. The individual who killed 11 Americans as they prayed was the one who was out of place. Not us.
His hate crime is treason against our country’s character. We aren’t living in 1939 Poland or 1948 Iraq, where Jews faced the life-threatening horrors of anti-Semitism. In 2018 America, we are all equal, whatever our race, religion, gender, or ethnicity. We live under the same Constitution.
Yes, I draw strength from joining together with Muslims and Catholics and Americans of other faiths to embrace the reality that we are one people living together. But even without that inter-faith embrace, no disciple of hate, whether he carries an assault weapon into a synagogue or stands before a White House podium, is going to change the fact that this is our country.
For the last two years, the Trump administration has normalized hate through its policy attacks on Muslims, asylum-seekers at the southern border, and the transgender community, among many others. This President has used his pulpit to marginalize murder in Charlottesville and support violence against protesters and journalists, stoking fires in the places where hate has festered throughout our history but had not previously been given the sunlight to grow.
The President’s daughter offered up a tweet of support to the “Jewish people.” She and others need to re-think their messages. This murderer attacked America. Members of the Jewish community aren’t “the other” here, and we won’t be relegated.
So, please hold your “thoughts and prayers.” Everyone searches for the right thing to say in the face of a tragedy. We struggle for words that will match the sorrow that we share and the vileness that we condemn. Prayer may deliver comfort in this awful moment, but we aren’t going to love away the hate and selfishness that fills those who commit such atrocities nor their apologists.
To those who wish to provide support, instead of offering thoughts and prayers, say that you are going to vote in the midterm elections next week. Tell us that you are going to get out the vote and phone bank over the next week. I’ll be canvassing for Josh Harder in Modesto, California, on Thursday and Conor Lamb in Pittsburgh on Saturday.
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In this election and the next, we have to demand that our elected officials represent the values that we uphold, enshrined in our Bill of Rights, which they swear an oath to protect. These crimes against the soul of our country can only begin to end when we rebuke this administration at the ballot box.
We closed the vigil at Beth Am by singing “America the Beautiful,” hand-in-hand with our neighbors. America is beautiful. This administration and the hate it spreads are not worthy of our country. Words and actions have meaning. All humans here are equal. All life is sacred. We have to live and vote these values, now.